Jürgen Klopp has described Champions League qualification as unlikely for Liverpool. He has unwittingly spoken of it in the past tense on occasion too. It remains, however, a possibility in the present after Sadio Mané’s first-half header and Thiago Alcântara’s first goal for the club downed Southampton while heightening the anxiety that stalks Leicester once again.
The Premier League champions, for a little while longer at least, can sniff blood in the form of Brendan Rodgers’ faltering side, who they now trail by six points but with a game in hand and a less taxing run-in overall. This performance was not a convincing argument for Liverpool’s own prospects of remaining part of the European elite and they were indebted to their goalkeeper Alisson for a clean sheet that Southampton had several chances to ruin. But at this stage of an exhausting season, the end product was all that mattered for Klopp.
Thiago’s measured finish in the 90th minute also brought rare comfort to a team that had blown slender leads in their two previous outings. “It was a big one for us,” the Liverpool manager admitted. “What it means for our top-four hopes is that they are still alive but nothing else. Other teams are still in a better position. All we can do is win our games and if we can win all four it could be enough but I really haven’t thought it through. Winning all four is the only chance we have, I think, and that’s what we should try.”
Liverpool, with the inexperienced Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams required and impressing in central defence, started where they left off against Newcastle last time out at Anfield: controlling possession, crafting clear openings and allowing the visitors to escape punishment too often. As the regular anguished shrieks from Ralph Hasenhüttl testified, however, Southampton were also guilty of squandering fine chances throughout.
Mané blazed over early on when picked out by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s pin-point pass out of defence. The Senegal striker’s first touch took him inside Jannik Vestergaard but, with a clear sight of Fraser Forster’s goal, he blazed high into the Anfield Road stand to the visible annoyance of his manager.
Forster, recalled in place of Alex McCarthy, produced a solid display in the Southampton goal. He denied Diogo Jota after the forward collected Mané’s back-heel and weaved his way past three challenges before shooting at the keeper. From the subsequent corner he saved with his legs from Mohamed Salah, played in by Alexander-Arnold once again. He was beaten at the next corner, also by the Liverpool right-back, but Georginio Wijnaldum’s towering header struck the crossbar.
The complexion of the first half was shaped inside 60 seconds. Southampton should have taken the lead, and had two clear chances to do so, but found themselves trailing instead. Nathan Tella was released down the right by Theo Walcott and centred for the unmarked Che Adams, who never looked convincing as Alisson closed him down and blocked an attempted chip with his chest. Thiago and Alexander-Arnold made a mess of the resulting clearance, giving Nathan Redmond a free shot from the edge of the area that he sent tamely into Alisson’s grasp.
Southampton were punished immediately. Fabinho found Salah in space on the right and the Egypt international produced an exquisite cross for Mané to head home from close range at the back post. The breakthrough was the first time that Salah and Mané had combined for a goal in the Premier League this season, surprisingly.
Salah should have doubled the hosts’ advantage moments later but took too long attempting to round Forster and saw his eventual shot blocked by the Southampton defence.
Tella headed straight at Alisson when presented with a free header in front of goal by Redmond’s cross, and the Liverpool goalkeeper tipped over from substitute Ibrahima Diallo as Southampton pressed for an equaliser in the second half.
Alisson almost gifted Adams a goal with a careless clearance straight to the striker but redeemed himself by saving a tame follow-up. The final word belonged to Thiago, however, who swept home his first Liverpool goal from 20 yards after substitute Roberto Firmino and Mané had forced an error from Kyle Walker-Peters.
Hasenhüttl lamented: “We had big chances. The difference between the teams was that one was clinical and the other had the ball at their feet from Alisson Becker and couldn’t score.”